Werewolf or Woman? The Taboo of the Moon Cycle.
Who Told Us We Were Naked?
Taboo. Can you guess the word from five clues? Moon. Transformation. Ferocious. Blood. Ravenous.
Nope, not a werewolf. Menstruation: one of the greatest lingering taboos from before living memory. And not just in word, but in deed and thought as well. Rather than speak of IT we euphemize; rather than reveal our “condition” we take our whole handbag to the restroom; rather than contemplate too much on what we’re experiencing we pop a pill and keep working. It seems that people are more willing to discuss their bowel movements and the health of their prostate than they are to acknowledge the commonplace occurrence of the period. Why? If we no longer believe that women can curdle milk during our cycle, why do we act as if our very mention of it will? Our reluctance to acknowledge its universally known presence is worse than a 3 year-olds hushed giggle of their “pee-pee.” At least they will name it, and with a sense of their own body’s delightful mystery. But as adults we are suddenly stricken with shame and disgust at the manifestation of a woman’s fertility and health. It has a “fall of man” in the Garden of Eden feel to it.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked…and [god] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’”
Who told us we were naked? Who declared it a sin to speak of our own bodies? Menstruation wasn’t part of the curse for eating from the tree of knowledge, but sometimes it feels like a societal curse, one which everyone knows about but no one will admit to knowing.
The Paradox of Normal
One day in fifth grade, my class was shepherded to a mysterious movie-viewing where the only information offered about it was a slew of hushed theories amongst my peers. It was a simple (perhaps simplistic?) overview of how boys and girls’ bodies change. I remember joking about the film with my classmates afterward, pretending like I was already fully initiated into the occult knowledge inherent to my body. Nonetheless, the information was mostly news to me because I had never been explained any of it before, except perhaps in snatches here and there from friends or media. When I experienced menarche, I had neither heard of the word nor had any mentorship to guide me into the life-long journey ahead, beyond that one institutional drop in the bucket of my fears and ignorance. With all love due my mom I was, however, left to discover my own life cycle by the dim light of personal experiment and social whispers. I was indirectly taught that my period was about inconvenience, pain, and crankiness. It was everything that was wrong in the world coalescing in my abdomen every month. Men were to be shielded from the topic, and women mostly broached it in euphemisms: “Aunt Flo has come for a visit.” “It’s my time of the month.” For as much as women’s lib has accomplished in numerous areas, I don’t feel very free in this one.
Karen Houppert, the author of The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, Menstruation, writes about this very paradox. “Menstruation is taught in schools because it’s 'natural’, but treated as though it’s nasty. Menstruation is normal, but the attendant hormonal flux is a disease. Menstruation is obsessively hidden, yet its real disappearance – menopause – engenders disdain… After a while,” she continues, “it becomes psychologically disorienting for women to look out at a world where their reality doesn’t exist.”
According to a 1981 survey (where are the more recent ones???) for Tampax “Two-thirds of those surveyed said that women should not mention their periods in the office or in social situations - that included veiled references to stomach pains or headaches - and more than one-third thought women should conceal the fact that they were menstruating from their families.”
I’m unconvinced that women, even those who haven’t thought much about the current social status of menstruation, are satisfied with the invisible burden of concealing a major natural function of life not only from the population at large, but from those whom they live closely with day to day. The truth is, a woman will bleed approximately 2,250 to 3,000-plus days in her lifetime. I wonder, how would we act if we didn’t have to hide for 3,000 days of our lives? In what ways could we flourish if we no longer hunkered beneath the sterilizing history of myth and superstition? What alternatives are possible for us?
Lifting the Curse
“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing.”
This opening quote from Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent expresses a disconnect between women all over the world. Where perhaps we once had pride, mentorship, and community we now experience shame, uncertainty, and isolation. I don’t intend to deify women or turn our blood into a holy sacrament; nevertheless, I would like to purge some of the shame surrounding our natural cycles and reclaim the rejuvenation possible within them.
“Each cycle provides a woman with the opportunity to understand and read the messages her body gives her for any specific healing she needs...The distressing symptoms that so commonly surround a woman’s menstrual cycle in our day are often due to women simply not being connected with their cycle and ignoring their body’s messages or symptoms, messages there to indicate specific emotional, or physical needs or imbalances.” (Jane Hardwicke Collings. “The Spiritual Practice of Menstruation.”) You can read this as hippy dippy, or you can read it as a simple exhortation to honor yourself in direct proportion to the way in which we’ve seen ourselves dishonored by culture and history. Consider how often you (if you’re a female reader) pay attention to the signals your body is displaying? When you get a sore throat, do you just take a cough drop and hope it goes away? Have you paused to think about whether you might be overbooked, working too much, and/or hemmed in by filial responsibilities? Have you ever thought that your “PMS” symptoms are a way your body tells you to withdraw from the extraneous bustle and rest? Perhaps those ferocious feelings are an excusable way to vent from a month’s worth of accumulation; they could be a primal way of telling the world to back off and you to back away. Instead of sweeping out any sign of your moon cycle with a four-letter epithet and a swift kick with a pill, maybe you could try using it as an opportunity to take care of yourself instead of everyone else that has your attention the rest of the month. In order to do this it is imperative that you talk with those you live with so a space can be carved out for your needs.
I’ve found that I am much more tired during my cycle, making me want to curl up with a book, take a bath, nap, practice gentle yoga, drink gallons of tea, meditate, write, and sit out in nature. Some of the things that I normally enjoy doing -- dancing, hiking, going out for drinks with friends -- I don’t have much energy for during that time. Some women benefit from creating some personalized rituals to mark and celebrate their moon times. Others find that too woo woo and might just like to take a few days off work. Still others join a “red tent” gathering for a deeper experience of support, encouragement, and honoring. I’ve once enjoyed just such a small gathering of friends where we shared food, stories, laughter, and the simple gift of presence. More commonly, though, I take the opportunity to listen to myself with the same focus that I give to everyone else the rest of the month. I identify any stressors, evaluate my current trajectory, and seek to realign anything that has gotten out of balance. I don’t see my cycle as an inconvenience anymore, as much as fortuity. I’ve been given a biological excuse to nap more, read more, and nurture myself every 30 or so days. Hello? If we think that is a curse, maybe it’s not our bodies that are bungled, but our lifestyles.
© 2016 Emily